Eccentricities of character

18 February, 2019. Missouri is defined by its small towns as much as anything else, and our small towns are characterized by a distinctive period architecture. The state itself has not yet celebrated its two hundredth birthday, and while it is possible to identify sites older than two centuries it’s much more likely to encounter towns dating back to the late nineteenth century.

The structures that give our small towns their personality therefore tend to be Victorian era “Painted Ladies,” bungalows of the 1920’s, occasional flourishes of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, and a variety of revivalist stylings.

Part of the charm for me is how distinctively “Midwestern” our neighborhoods tend to be. There’s a pleasant variety from one home to the next. After all – the thinking must have gone – why on earth would anyone want to build a house just like one’s neighbor?

Wander the streets and you’ll find a clear boundary evident between older neighborhoods and the new: Even in the most expensive tracts, houses have a cookie-cutter philosophy and homes associations encourage – in fact demand – a uniformity and homogeneity that I view with disquiet.

I love when a mixture of styles seems to have evolved in an organic fashion, each new structure fulfilling a particular need, and representing someone’s individuality. For some reason, I find the eccentricities of character comforting in a way that planned communities fail to ignite in me.


Perfect day.

17 February, 2019. Yet another miserably cold afternoon, a Sunday. Snow covers pretty much every surface other than those patches of road that have been plowed and treated. Every vehicle sports a topper of dirty gray snow, the wind is merciless, and my hands are quickly numb from exposure. I’ve tried – believe me, I have – but I simply cannot sketch while wearing gloves.

I hike around downtown Kansas City, a little surprised to find there’s traffic and even pedestrians. Sketching from the front seat of my car provides warmth and shelter, but a limited view. Eventually, I conclude that hoofing it is the better option.

I don’t know if the ink is freezing or too thick, but getting it to flow onto the page is an exercise in sluggish liquid behavior. So pencil, it is. Immune to the cold, my pencil responds more than adequately. Every mark is a mirror of my shaking hands. It’s impossible to add details, but that’s ok. I’ve come down here in search of a specific image – strong verticals, receding forms. I’ll focus only on the play of positive and negative spaces – it would be a remarkably simply thing to change my sketches into a world of purely abstract shapes.

I’m freezing. My hands are numb and shaking. And it really is a nearly perfect afternoon to be outside.

Enough, already!

16 February, 2019. Enough is enough, Mother Nature! I get it: Snow is pretty. But I’m weary of the indoors. Sketching on location is catch-as-catch-can from the front seat of my car. Pulling over to the side of the road to scrawl a few marks onto paper is dicey – the roads are slick and every passing vehicle is a potentially unguided juggernaut.

And conditions evolve quickly. This morning the light changed too fast for me to keep up.

Back indoors, I continue to play around: yesterday evening it was made up landscapes, wet-in-wet washes, atmosphere, negative space. It’s a purely visual experiment but I feel I’m getting repetitive. I need to work on something different.

Enough, already! Mother Nature, you won’t foil me! I am heading out this afternoon, regardless of the conditions.


13 February, 2019. It’s no secret that I enjoy telling stories through the drawings I make. My scribbles are usually a response to a particular place and time and experience. Even though I feel no sense of obligation to record the sort of detail a photographer might value – in fact, I’ll often indulge in creative license to add visual interest – I seldom make up a scene entirely from whole cloth as I’ve done with these examples.

I do like to experiment and doodle, and sometimes my scribbles suggest ideas to me, concept emerges from the abstract qualities of a sketch. The pencil thumbnail below, for instance, began as playful experimentation with values. Very quickly, I began to see a rift – a river, perhaps? – and a structure. In front of the structure is the ending section of a wall. Surrounding these elements is a whole lot of nothingness.

Perhaps it’s simply an awareness of the current political discourse that makes the blob of graphite suggestive of a barrier to me. Maybe it’s simply a reaction to the chance placement of penciled marks… honestly, I’m not terribly concerned about the genesis. However, I’m always intrigued by the formal qualities of a work – especially when those qualities imply something greater than color or bold strokes or contrast – or whatever. At heart, I am a formalist I suppose… a formalist intrigued by narrative and expression.

Permission to play around.

11 February, 2019. It always pays to revisit the sketchbook. On many pages there are scrawled lines in ink and pencil that bear further scrutiny. And while I’d already mined my New Orleans sketches for most of the gold, I found I was able to locate a few remaining glimmers among the rough scribbles.

Neither of these count as true “reportage sketching” – not in any real sense, anyway. On my sketchbook pages I found a couple of gestures from which I was able to reinterpret slightly more formed drawings. Rather than documenting any actual person, these represent an act of fun: scribbles, enjoyment of the media, expressive gesture and line; self-permission not to jump through anyone else’s hoops of expectation, self-permission to just play with my pen.

I had an idea…

10 February, 2019. I had an idea, somewhat imperfectly formed in my mind, an image that I could almost – but not quite grasp. In a moment of nearly pure clarity I could picture each and every necessary and vital step of the process.

The colors and washes went down exactly as I’d imagined, but then the washes began to dry. I questioned myself and left alone that which should have been manipulated further, and worked further into that which should have been left untouched. The marvelous image I pictured disappeared right in front of my eyes and in what remained I could only see, glaringly, folly.

In disgust, both with myself and my sketch, I documented the work and walked away.

And time passes. It’s another day. I still see a ghost of what might have been. I still cringe a little looking at the parts that made me shudder yesterday. I can place my thumb over some places in the sketch and see where I strayed. Mistakes are there, painful tools of learning – but I also see things I like, marks I overlooked yesterday masked by my chagrin at having missed the original target.

I’ll probably always cringe just a little at the amateurish strokes that mar an otherwise acceptable sketch. Such blows soften over time, this I know well.

Cold fog at dawn

9 February, 2019. If nothing else, this week of miserable weather has served as something of a muse.

Watercolor on 300# Arches Cold Press, 7 x 7 inches.

Simplicity, Restraint

8 February, 2019.

I love words.

I love how combinations of words we select enrich our use of language. The choice of one word of similar meaning over another can dramatically alter our communication and our choices may color the perception of one’s audience.

I think of sketches as a sort of parallel to language. One’s choice of color or mark are like words: yellow is yellow, right? Yes, except when it’s not. A cool yellow trends toward green and is reminiscent of spring and all the things that season implies, whereas the orange tones of a warm yellow creates a marked contrast against dark, cool shadows of winter. And like the difference between one word and another, the resulting messages are often different.

My sketches are intended to be a sharing of story… short stories actually, rather than a novel. These stories are slices of time, fleeting glimpses, slices of time. Encounters. The narrative of each sketch is intended to be easy to understand. They are most successful when I don’t succumb to busying detail.

I’m not especially fond of poetry, but I appreciate the brevity of haiku and the restraint of a well turned phrase. Elegance and simplicity evoke a banquet of emotions or ideas.

Sketches, like dialogue, shouldn’t be a compilation of flowery language, flash, dazzle, spectacle. Get to the core of the idea instead, and let’s all enjoy the conversation.

This small painting was in my head. It’s not any actual location, but it is a place I’ve walked through a thousand times in my imagination: A snow crusted hill, woods above and barren fields below, stiff and frozen mud – my breath a cloud. Time to go for a walk.

Watercolor and pencil on 300# Arches cold press, 7 x 7 inches.

Silly things.

7 February, 2019. I do a lot of silly things. Despite the fact that the sun is shining and at the moment the outside world looks rather enticing, a windchill of 2F is still awfully damn cold. And drawing from the front seat of a car, regardless of how warm the heater, would appear to some as a patently silly thing to do.

But as originally noted, my tendencies do lean toward the silly.

Silly, as in drawing an abandoned house on the edge of town on a day so miserably cold the streets are almost literally empty.

Bent nib fountain pen and white Signo pen on Stillman and Birn Nova Series gray paper; Liberty, Missouri.

Tonight, I painted quickly.

6 February, 2019. No school tomorrow – again. For three weeks in a row, Mother Nature has elected to hurl ice and snow and sub-zero temperatures our way, only to briefly rebound, then turn around and hit once more. For three weeks in a row, I’ve only taught four days out of five; today, in fact, I only led one single art class – and that for only thirty-five minutes: barely time enough to get out, then put away supplies.

Perhaps I was feeling the urgency to produce fast today, an urgency that was a reflection, no doubt, of my students scurrying around an art room and making a valiant, if somewhat doomed attempt at progress on this, day two of a four day assignment. The urgency I felt, therefore, was artificial. In fact, I had all evening to myself, and all day tomorrow, and the evening that follows. There was little need to rush through anything. Why not savor the opportunity, languish in this moment of unexpected freedom?

But I did not. There was an urgency to place paper on the board, quickly wet it, and just as quickly drag washes of color across the moist surface, haphazardly – but carefully and intentionally, mind you! – placing slightly differing hues of blue in such a way as to allow color to bleed softly into color.

I remember once in college being so affected, so overwhelmed by the beauty of a sudden thunderstorm that I painted in a near frenzy. My roommate thought I’d gone mad – and in a sense I suppose I had. My ability to use paint expressively was nil at the time, and the frustration I felt at an inability to express what I felt in that moment was keen. It is a frustration that to this day I can recall vividly.

Tonight, I painted quickly. The sketch took only minutes to express, and it seemed important that it happen in that way: quickly. To labor over the sky would be tantamount to sapping the life from the sketch.

Tonight I chose to let the sketch live or die by its own energy.

Or lack thereof.

“Sky before the rain and ice,” watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II, approximately 6 x 6 inches.